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Column: Visitors Center lets residents be tourists in hometown

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Growing up in Columbus, it is often easy for me to overlook the magnificence of this community. As a child, I thought every town must look exactly like mine.

I didn’t realize that my town was ranked sixth in the nation for architectural innovation and design by the American Institute of Architects. To be honest, I don’t think I knew what that meant. I just thought buildings were buildings and every town had them. How wrong was I?

This hometown of mine is a titan in the world of architecture and design, often mentioned in the same sentence as much larger cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington. The Smithsonian Magazine called Columbus a “veritable museum of modern architecture.”

We have close to 100 buildings and pieces of public art created by brilliant and world-renowned architects, designers and artists, including I.M. Pei, Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, Dale Chihuly and Henry Moore. If you don’t know who they are, I encourage you to look them up. You won’t be disappointed.

One of the best ways to learn about this town we call home is to take one of the numerous tours led by the Columbus Area Visitors Center. The center will resume its full tour schedule in March, offering guided tours every day of the week except Monday. Through the end of February, tours are offered on Friday and Saturday only.

The following is a brief description of the available tours. Per advice from the Visitors Center, guests should arrive 30 minutes prior to the scheduled tour to sign in and view a video about Columbus. Guests also are encouraged to register well in advance, as tours often sell out.

Columbus Architecture Tour: See the architecture that made Columbus famous on this two-hour guided bus tour. Guests will have the opportunity to see two building interiors during this overview of the community’s architecture and public art.

Downtown Walking Tour: Explore a variety of downtown Columbus landmarks, including First Christian Church, kidscommons, 301 Washington St. (the former private office of J. Irwin Miller) and the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans.

Tour by Cellphone: After purchasing a set of 10 keepsake informational cards, each corresponding with a different downtown location, guests are free to explore at their own pace. Each card includes a photo, facts about the location and a phone number to call to hear pre-recorded information about each landmark.

Miller House and Garden Tour: Visit the former residence of J. Irwin and Xenia Miller during this 90-minute tour. The Miller House, designed by Eero Saarinen, with interiors by Alexander Girard and landscape by Dan Kiley, is one of the most important midcentury modern residences in the country.

New this year, the Visitors Center is offering specialty tours of the Miller House and Garden. These tours are led by an Indianapolis Museum of Art tour guide.

Curator Tour: Experience the Miller House with an Indianapolis Museum of Art staff member as your guide. This tour takes guests on a deeper dive into the architecture and interior design of this historic home.

Landscape Tour: This extensive tour of the entire property emphasizes the landscape and gives guests a look into the landscape design concepts.

Photography Tour: This tour offers participants the opportunity to capture their own images of the iconic property. Guests on the general Miller House and Garden tour are not allowed to take photographs inside the home.

“We had so many people that wanted to know more about the Miller House,” said Lynn Lucas, Visitors Center executive director. “These tours also have fewer guests, so participants get a richer, deeper experience.”

Lucas said the Visitors Center also has freshened the other tours.

“We’ve had some wonderful refresher courses for our tour guides, led by the Indianapolis Museum of Art,” she said. “There are so many wonderful buildings and things to focus on. We’ve been doing some fine-tuning and narrowing the list to the very most important highlights.”

In 2013, the number of tours given hit an all-time high of 912.

“That’s an amazing number to think about, especially when you consider that all of our guides are volunteers,” Lucas said. “Our guides are so important. They love our community so much that they put in innumerable hours every year to lead these wonderful tours. We are so grateful for their efforts.”

Paige Harden is a lifelong resident of Columbus. A former Republic reporter, she is a freelance writer and public relations consultant. She can be reached by email at

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